Cara/Andrea here, inviting you to come on another peregrination . . .
Between the glittering elegance of London’s ballrooms, the bubbling charms of Bath’s Pump Room and the rugged splendor of Scotland’s Highlands, Wales—and the Welsh—tend to get overlooked in historical romance stories. I’m not sure why bucks of the ton and men in kilts get all the attention, for after a recent visit to the country, I came away utterly . . . enchanted!
Really, how can one not fall in love with a country that features Y Ddraig Goch—the Red Dragon—on its national flag. Dragons play a big role in Welsh mythology. The Historia Brittonum, which dates to around 820, contains the first written reference of the fanciful beast as the symbol of Wales. Ancient tradition then has it spreading its wings as the battle standard of King Arthur and other noble Celtic leaders.
The Arthurian legends are part of the heart and soul of Welsh heritage. Camelot and the Round Table is said to have existed in the present-day town of Caerleon, which also was headquarters of the Second Legion Augusta, the Roman force which occupied this part of Britannia from around 75 to 300 AD. Today, you can explore the impressive ruins of the bath complex built by the soldiers, and walk around a circular amphitheater built into the verdant meadows.
It was Geoffrey of Monmouth, who in the 12th century wrote the first detailed accounts of the fabled ruler and his exploits. Arthur, Uther Pendragon, Merlin, Mordred—his Historia Regum Britanniæ, a chronicle of the lives of Britain’s rulers, served as inspiration for centuries of Welsh bards. (Geoffrey didn’t mention Camelot. That embellishment to the story originated in the French courtly romances of Chretien de Troyes.)
These core tales of Arthur are also part of one of the most famous historic Welsh literary works—The Mabinogian. Inspired by folklore, myth and history, these collection of tales were part of the rich oral tradition of storytelling before being written down in the 13th century. They were first translated from Welsh into English in the early 1800s by Lady Charlotte Guest, daughter of the 9th Earl of Lindsey , who worked from two late medieval manuscripts—the Red Book of Hergest and the White Book of Rhydderch. (Lady Charlotte traveled extensively in Europe after the death of her Welsh husband, and was an avis art collector. She bequeathed a wonderful ceramics collection to the V&A Museum, and an assortment of fans, playing cards and board games to the British Museum.)
An aura of mystery and magic pervade these imaginative tales—which I’ve been told shouldn’t be surprising, as the Welsh are a people who love language, both written and spoken. Celts are renowned for their storytelling traditions, so poetry and song are deeply rooted in their culture. To this day, it’s given voice in a variety of artistic expression, both in English and in their wonderfully tongue-twisting native language. (Like the Scots and the Irish, the Welsh have an uneasy history with England. Conflict has colored the past centuries, both before and after the first Act of Union in 1536 joined Wales to its larger neighbor . . . but that is a subject for another time.)
Inspiration is easy to understand when you are in Wales. It is a small land of immense and scenic natural beauty—craggy coastline, sandy beaches, rolling meadows, majestic mountains. Though it’s only 8,00 square miles in size (roughly the size of Massachusetts) it features a great variety of terrain, from the bucolic pastures of the Wye Valley in the southeast to the rugged Snowdon Mountain range in the northwest. (Sir Edmund Hilary trained in Wales for his famous ascent of Mt. Everest.)
For those of us who love history, Wales is equally alluring. Over 600 castles dot its hilltops and peaks, including Caerphilly, one of the largest in all of Europe, Castell Coch, built in the 19th century by the Marquess of Bute, and Caernarfon, a splendid Medieval fortress built by Edward I, where the present-day Charles was crowned Prince of Wales. There is also a wealth of fascinating museums and libraries to explore. Or you can meander through the winding country roads, visiting places like Caerfyrddin, said to be the birthplace of Merlin, and Llyn y Fan Fach, a remote lake in the Black Mountains which has its very own Lady of the Lake legend.
And then there is Hay-on-Wye, a tiny town on the English border that is a must-see for anyone who loves the printed page. World famous for it antiquarian, specialty and secondhand bookshops—there are over 30 for a population of 1500—Hay-on-Wye holds an annual festival in late spring that draws people from all over the globe for author readings, panel discussions, and a general celebration of literature. But even if you can’t make it for that week, the stores are open year-round, as is a large traditional market on Thursdays, which features antiques, crafts, flowers, homebaked goods and local foods.
Speaking of foods, all the wonderful things to see and do require a goodly amount energy. So it’s fortunate that Welsh food is so delicious. Make sure to stop often at one of the many charming tea shops. Welsh cakes, a sort-of flat scone dusted with sugar, and bara brith, a fruit cake laced with raisins and walnuts, are two of my favorite snacks. Salt marsh lamb and Usk Valley beef win culinary kudos. Oh, and don’t get me started on the amazing array of local artisanal cheeses. Teifi Celtic Promise, Cenarth Perl Las, Gorwydd Caerphilly . . . needless to say, I came home packing a few extra pounds—alas, on my person, not in my suitcase!
This short tour does not nearly do justice to the magical kingdom that is Wales. (If you've never been to this part of Great Britain, I heartily recommend a visit!) Like Celtic bards of old, I could wax poetic for hours describing the hauntingly beautiful legends and landscapes. However, I shall leave you with just a last, short word. I dearly love my traditional British historical heroes—a London Corinthian, with gleaming Hessians and a perfectly tied Trone d’Amour still makes my heart go pitter-pat. And a Highlander with kilt and claymore is a sight to make any lady swoon. But after meeting a number of black-haired, blue-eyed Welshmen, with the lilt of laughter and poetry in their voices, I’m already imagining a hero for my new trilogy. His name is Gruffydd . . .or Rhys . . . or Ioan . . . (shown here is Welshman Ioan (Horatio Hornblower) Gruffudd as Lancelot. Need I say more?)Now, how about you? Are you familiar with Wales and its legends? Did you love the stories of King Arthur and the Round Table as much as I did as a child? Or did you have a favorite tale or myth from another country. (My mother was Swiss, so I also grew up knowing all about William Tell and his famous apple!)